Few women nowadays would stop to think of the suffragettes – those brave women who stood up for the right to vote, and were often beaten, abused, and imprisoned for their efforts. In Katherine Webb’s novel,Â The Unseen, it is 1911 and Cat Morley has just been released from Holloway Gaol after such an imprisonment. Cat is now placed in service to a rural vicar and his wife in Cold Ash Holt, as their parlourmaid, whose job is to be unseen, but as she has had a middle-class education the lowly position rankles. However she finds comfort in clandestine meetings with a local bargeman, and gradually the memory of Holloway seems to fade.
Soon, the vicar appears to take an interest in the theory of the wisdom of nature, called theosophy at the time. A practitioner of the theory, Robin Durrant, soon becomes the vicar’s house guest for an indefinite stay. However his desperation to make a name for himself as a theosopher ends up corrupting the vicar’s marital relationship. In addition Cat is drawn into his schemes as he blackmails her with the night-time visits to her lover.
In parallel to this story, Katherine Webb has written an interesting conundrum with a 2011 Commonwealth War Graves Commission enquiry into a soldier’s identity – a body from WWI unearthed in Belgium. Freelance journalist LeahÂ takes on the job of identifying him from two cryptic letters that were found with him. It seems the letters discuss a child, and a dark secret, but no aid to identification except the name of the town – Cold Ash Holt. Leah traces the letters to the very same vicar and his wife that Cat is in service to, over the course of the novel.
The descriptions of Robin’s systematic destruction of the vicar’s relationship and of Cat’s gradual rebirth from the trauma of imprisonment make for a gripping novel. The War Graves enquiry provides an interesting parallel as Leah also shrugs off her shadowed past (in her case, a failed relationship) while she gets to know the story of Cold Ash Holt. As a side note, I was also deeply moved by the descriptions of suffragism and what the early activists for women’s rights must have gone through for their principles. It is eye-opening to realise how far we have come since 1911.
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